Key Super Bowl XLV matchups: When the Steelers have the ball

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When Super Bowl XLV finally kicks off at 6:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, several key matchups will determine the outcome. Here's a look at several of those crucial pairings when the Steelers are on offense.

IRVING, Texas -- It's appropriate that the Green Bay player in this matchup has the surname Hawk because he must keep a watchful eye on Pittsburgh's third-year feature back, Rashard Mendenhall especially on third down.
Key Super Bowl XLV matchups: When the Steelers have the ball When Super Bowl XLV finally kicks off at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, several key matchups will determine the outcome. Here's a look at several of those crucial pairings when the Steelers are on offense.
Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall vs. Packers ILB A.J. Hawk

A.J. Hawk is a solid tackler and run defender, but his weakness is covering gifted running backs and tight ends on shorter routes to the middle of the field. Against Mendenhall, a well-built, powerful runner, Hawk will feel like it's the Big Ten all over again, like he's back in Ohio State against Mendenhall, from Illinois.

"(Mendenhall) is really a very physical runner, which really suits being in Pittsburgh very well," Hawk said. "He also can make all the cuts. He's a good blocker in pass protection. He's an all-around really good back."

Hawk will get plenty of help in run support, first with nose tackle B.J. Raji getting a strong push against backup center Doug Legursky and from fellow inside linebacker Desmond Bishop.

The Steelers don't throw much to their running backs, but Mendenhall has shown improved hands and a better understanding of the passing game to the point he now can be trusted to bail out Ben Roethlisberger when under duress.

Mendenhall has only three receptions in the playoffs, but all three have gone for critical first downs and a total of 45 yards. Hawk likely will be left man-to-man on Mendenhall in coverage, just a few yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

With plenty of help from his friends, Hawk will slow Mendenhall in the running game. In coverage, Hawk must be disciplined, break down and go for the sure tackle. If Mendenhall can make Hawk miss, he can shoot to the outside and keep running down the sidelines for a big gain.

Mendenhall has underrated pop, too. If the Steelers had a better offensive line, he could well be a Pro Bowl back. The Steelers will work to establish the run and slow the tempo of the game Sunday, but if the running game isn't effective coordinator Bruce Arians must get the ball to Mendenhall as a receiver.

When the Packers blitz, Mendenhall could change the face of Super Bowl XLV. It's up to him to take advantage of Hawk on those short routes.
Steelers OLB James Harrison vs. Packers LT Chad Clifton

In his last Super Bowl appearance, Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison intercepted Cardinals QB Kurt Warner at the goal line and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown. Although Warner had a great game overall, that one lapse in judgment cost Arizona the victory.

Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are aware they have little margin for error against Harrison in coverage or the primary concern he presents—as a unrelenting pass rusher.

It takes experience to handle all of Harrison's moves, and Green Bay has great faith in savvy Pro Bowl left tackle Chad Clifton to slow him down.

"I will be blocking Harrison for the majority of the game," Clifton said Thursday. "My film study has been on him for the most part."

Preparation is one thing, but Clifton also knows he must match Harrison's resolve and intensity.

"(Harrison) is a phenomenal player," Clifton said. "He is like a pit bull out there. You have to really admire the way he plays the game and the passion he plays with. He's going to give it 100 percent on every play."

Dealing with Harrison's endless arsenal of moves is a problem. Even if an offensive tackle gets help, it might not be enough to impede his path to the quarterback.

"He has bull-rush capability," Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "He's got the strength to knock the offensive tackle back, so therefore he could probably knock the tight end back or running back back.

"Sometimes, a one-dimensional rusher—somebody with great power who doesn't have the speed or somebody who can really run around the edge but can't knock you over—sometimes you can handle that. When you have the combination he has—he's got both of them—it's a challenge."

Something to watch Sunday night is when Harrison flushes Rodgers out of the pocket. If Harrison is too aggressive getting upfield, Rodgers will have plenty of room to run with Harrison out of the equation on the left side—where Rodgers does the most damage with his legs.

Clifton must work hard to keep Harrison at bay because of how much he can change any game with one disruptive play.
Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger vs. Packers CB Charles Woodson

When Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger breaks the huddle Sunday in Super Bowl XLV, he will pay special attention to Green Bay Packers Pro Bowler Charles Woodson. Sometimes Woodson plays cornerback, sometimes he plays safety, and sometimes he blitzes from various spots on the field.

Woodson’s versatility and his ability to make plays can force even the best quarterbacks into big mistakes.

"Charles is getting similar to (Ravens safety) Ed Reed in some ways because Charles does play some safety," Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. "You have to be alert to wherever he is. When he blitzes, he can knock you out because he hits like a linebacker.

“And when he’s playing safety, he’ll leave his area if he reads your eyes. If he sees a pattern developing, he’ll jump it. When we play the Ravens, we never throw the football unless we look at Ed Reed first. It will be the same with Charles."

Woodson will do his best to disguise his intentions before the ball is snapped. Last season, Roethlisberger won their chess match, as the Steelers beat the Packers in a wild 37-36 game.

Asked how he felt after that game, Woodson said, "Sick. Sick because of how we lost the game on the last play, but even more sick about the defense we played. That was embarrassing. We couldn’t get off the field. We couldn’t stop them from scoring any points. It was a hard pill to swallow, but we all had to sit there and watch the film last week and go over the game and see why it was that way. That’s something we have to make sure doesn’t happen this week."

Given another chance to face Roethlisberger, Woodson would love to produce a key turnover that turns the momentum in Green Bay’s favor. CBS analyst and ex-NFL quarterback Rich Gannon is a former teammate of Woodson’s with the Raiders. Gannon remembers how dangerous Woodson can be from their practices in Oakland. Unlike many defensive backs, Woodson has terrific hands.

"Charles will actually bait you into making throws in his direction," Gannon said. "That’s something Ben has to be aware of. He’ll give a receiver a cushion, but when the ball’s in the air, he has tremendous closing ability on the football. And of course, if he catches it, he becomes an immediate threat to score from anywhere on the field. He’ll be fun to watch Sunday."
Steelers TE Heath Miller vs. Packers secondary

The Packers need to do a better job on Heath Miller than they did last season, when he caught seven passes for 118 yards in the Steelers' 37-36 victory. The Packers do so much blitzing and move linebacker Clay Matthews and cornerback Charles Woodson around so much, it's hard to predict how they will defend Miller this time.

"Who knows until Sunday," Miller said. "Charles Woodson can play anywhere in the secondary. He plays in the box, and he does it really well anywhere you put him. That’s one of the things that makes them a good defense. They throw you changeups and curveballs."

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger doesn't throw many changeups, but he loves throwing to Miller, particularly on third down and in the red zone. Whenever Roethlisberger adlibs and extends plays, Miller is adept at making himself available.

"This is our sixth year together, so any time you play with someone for that many years, you’ve been through hundreds of plays, hundreds of times," Miller said. "It’s really not that complicated. I just try to find a hole in the field and go there. Most of the time he finds me. He’s got the tough job, trying to get away from the guys trying to sack him. That’s where he’s really special.’’

Packers coach Mike McCarthy remembers how effective Miller was against the Packers last season. Though he didn't go into specifics on how they will play Miller differently, don't be surprised if Woodson shadows Miller more often.

"Heath Miller is just an outstanding player," McCarthy said. "When you see him in person, he’s bigger than you think he is. He runs precise routes. Ask any quarterback, and they’ll tell you it’s great to have a big target like that in the middle of the field. As a defense, if you don’t find a way to deal with that, you’ll get hurt."

The emergence of Mike Wallace and rookie Antonio Brown as deep threats could make Miller even more dangerous in the Super Bowl. Miller hopes the Packers’ effort to deny long pass plays creates more opportunities for him.

"Teams have made it a point not to give us that big play," Miller said.

But the Packers will make it a point to stop Miller as well. They have learned from experience that Miller can be a tough matchup.
Steelers WRs vs. Packers CBs

Perhaps the most unpredictable matchup for Super Bowl XLV is Green Bay's cornerbacks against Pittsburgh's wide receivers. Because each team must deal with the other's versatility and depth, Green Bay's assignments -- who covers whom in what spots on the field -- will change on every down.

The stars in coverage in the playoffs have been Pro Bowler Tramon Williams and rookie nickel back Sam Shields. Although last year's Defensive Player of the Year, Charles Woodson, is in the equation, Williams and Shields will be charged with covering the Steelers' top two receivers: the speedy Mike Wallace and the tough Hines Ward.

Williams, fast and gifted with great ball skills, can stay with Wallace down the sidelines and also can expect to get safety help over the top, as the Packers play cover-2 behind their 3-4 front. Barring a major lapse, Green Bay shouldn't give up a big play to Wallace.

As for Shields, his inexperience, especially in comparison toward a 13-year veteran, might hurt him on third downs, where Ward prides himself on being a fearless slot receiver looking to move the chains. Shields, however, should be able to handle Steelers No. 3 Antonio Brown, also a rookie.

The wild card here is Woodson. If the Packers believe that Williams and Shields can contain the perimeter, then defensive coordinator Dom Capers can get creative with Woodson as a triple-threat slot cover man, inside run support defender and edge blitzer.

In the chess game with Capers, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin expects Woodson to be a primary attack piece.

"The utilization of Charles Woodson and his unique talent is a good place to start," Tomlin said.
Steelers C Doug Legursky vs. Packers NT B.J. Raji

Doug Legursky faces a huge task replacing starting center Maurkice Pouncey in Super Bowl XLV. Raji is one of the best nose tackles in football, capable of being disruptive against the run and the pass. In the NFC championship game, Raji showed his athleticism by intercepting a pass and returning it for a touchdown. He even lines up occasionally on offense as a fullback in short-yardage situations. Far more than a space-eater, Raji had 6 1/2 sacks during the regular season. He has the quickness to get around Legursky and to bring pressure up the middle on Ben Roethlisberger in passing situations.

"This is the guy who kind of embodies the `more you can do’ attitude that our football team has,” coach Mike Tomlin said of Legursky. "He competes, he’s mentally and physically tough, and we expect him to meet the standard.”

Roethlisberger said he would speak with Legursky frequently.

"I think he’s going to put more pressure on himself than anybody needs to," Roethlisberger said Monday. "That’s the biggest thing I’ll say to him is, `Listen, you’re good enough. You don’t have to do anything special. Don’t’ try to be Maurkice, just be yourself, because you’re good enough to get it done.'"

Roethlisberger had better hope so, or the Steelers will have problems. Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews is almost impossible to handle one-on-one, so that is already one player the Steelers must pay special attention to. If Raji has his way with Legursky, the Steelers may be forced to help him with his blocking assignments.

The Steelers want to run the football successfully in this game, so Legursky will need to win at least some battles against Raji. Running back Mendenhall is a between-the-tackle runner, not a speed merchant, make-you-miss back. If there are holes to be found, Mendenhall will be effective. But if Raji clogs the middle, the Steelers’ running game will bog down.

Despite weighing more than his listed 337 pounds, Raji is a durable, every-down player who rarely comes off the field. That means Legursky will not get many breaks. Raji has already enjoyed a breakout season. Unless Pouncey makes a speedy recovery, Legursky will face the challenge of keeping Raji from having a breakout Super Bowl.

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